If you are standing in downtown South Bend, IN, located about a mile and a half from the campus of the University of Notre Dame, and you look south over the city you can see in the near distance a curved roof adjacent to a rail embankment. The structure is the city’s old Union Station. Now defunct it is repurposed to house data centers. If you take the train to South Bend however, you will disembark at one of two stations–the South Bend Airport station or the Amtrak station–both are located in two different parts of town west of the city center; both are a number of miles from important landmarks. No passenger trains stop at the old centrally located Union Station.
In so many cases, this is the reality of train stations in cities all across the country. Old stations, often built-in a palatial styles or at the height of the Art Deco period, stand empty or defunct only to have trains stop at places far outside of town along desolate and meek platforms. In so many cities, contemporary stations have nothing more than the most basic amenities and few could be called centers of civic life or economy. There are grand plans for the reinvigoration of passenger rail in the United States. California is pushing ahead with plans for a high-speed rail line connecting north and south as are Florida and Texas. At a smaller scale Michigan and Illinois are doing the same thing in the Midwest. But the larger conversations seem to stop where the trains do: the stations. A world-class rail system is the product of good service, comfortable and convenient rides, but also great stations. But as far as I can tell, only a handful of stations are getting the attention they deserve.
I spent a good chuck of time writing about the significance of revising Union Station in Chicago, which is disproportionately important because of its location at the center of both the national and Midwest rail systems. The attention Union Station needs is well deserved, but we don’t want a rail system that is like a crown with one real jewel in it and a bunch of faux plastic diamonds surrounding it. Train stations are one of the places where passengers most intimately interact with a rail system. Stations are where the city greets these intercity systems. They also provide malleable ways to begin taking on the massive project of rebuilding a transit system that was lost long ago. They offer more than one use in one place, and that is an immediately tapable characteristic, one which may more easily garner private and public funds.
Unfortunately, we are no longer a home of universally good or great train stations. In so many cities, even where the old head houses still stand, contemporary train stations have transformed into shells of their former selves. Take St. Louis for example. The current intercity train station and transit hub is the Gateway Multimodal Transportation Center. The stop is nothing more than a pedestrian bridge and a few platforms squished between a double-decker highway and rail yard. Interestingly though the old Union Station (an historic landmark) is right around the corner. Although it has been converted into a multi-use complex, it has the capacity to be reinvented as a rail station, one along a potentially bustling passenger rail corridor. It is certainly a more visible structure and location and incredibly more aesthetically pleasing experience.
There are examples of major improvements though: in Denver and Minneapolis/St. Paul, major overhauls and minor changes to transit organization within the cities were implemented to turn heritage train stations into multi-modal transit and civic centers serving Amtrak, local rail mass transit systems, local buses, and intercity buses. This included modernized facilities and better connected services in a more centrally located station. In the case of Denver’s Union Station the project included and award-winning new train shed. I’ve talked about this before in the context of how important it is to have both a functional and aesthetically pleasing environment.
These are wonderful examples of how cities have taken it upon themselves to reinvent and reclaim their passenger rail stations. At a national level though, a system of best practices, recommendations, and financial incentives to reclaiming old stations can be utilized to push forward a significant part of the national invigoration of passenger rail that from my perspective is being overlooked, but has the potentially to be one of the easier and more manageable aspects of this.
The goals should be to 1) get control of these properties or in cases when heritage stations don’t exist anymore, get control of prime properties for a new train station. This leads in to a series of related goals. The stations or sites should 2) be turned into mixed private-public places with the aim of being civic centers with opportunities to connect to travel options, but also shop, or lease office space. Many European train stations retain the feel of a classic train station while also employing these other elements. Plans can be implemented even to develop the commercial spaces first before the trains arrive to create some use and simply wait to build out platforms. These sites could even become centers for farmer’s markets and art fairs or dance parties and pop-up night clubs. The most important goal is 3) to consolidate services at one station to create easy intermodal connections and bring in a high number of passengers. This isn’t always going to be possible (like in Chicago or New York), but in even in places like tiny South Bend this could make a difference. In this example, consolidation would connect South Shore Lines to Amtrak and provide easier more centralized access to South Bend and 12 plus trains in and out of South Bend in each direction daily. Consolidation alone would make a huge improvement especially if combined with other intermodal connections.
Incentives should be made to reinvest in old stations. This could be federal or state grants covering the costs of renovations, priority advertising services for private businesses that donate money to the project, financial aid in the construction of new transit systems that connect to the stations, and increased financial aid to services that voluntarily consolidate services in one station. Speciality grants or long-term aid could be given to taking back old stations previously repurposed for non-transportation uses, like the St. Louis Union Station. Over time, the funds raised from taxes produced in stations and fees on businesses and services using them would hopefully help fund further additions, expansions, and/or renovations.
There are so many ways we can be reimagine, reclaimed and reuse our old train stations and build new ones. New train sets, reconstructed tracks, and better governance is important to improving rail in the United States, but the train stations are really important too and in some ways the most important element of this process. They are the faces of the rail systems and really the infrastructure most people will actually experience on a daily basis, even those not using the system. They also have the ability to function as new community and economic centers in struggling downtowns and city centers. We can’t expect rail to become a viable option and fuel economic change and become competitive transit modes in cities if the stations we have are retained in their sub par form. Too often they’re small, unattractive, and too far from the city centers to be accessible or have a meaningful impact on communities.
A new plan for stations needs to take social, economic, and logistical concerns into account. A plan that defines best practices should be adopted. Incentives to implement it should be identified. Our train stations should be a collection of gems woven into a larger infrastructure system. Some station designs have popped up in localized master plans and the new Denver Union Station is a great example of the possibilities the future holds for American passenger stations. And considering the attention that project got, I think it is safe to say stations are important and should get attention now rather than later.